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What is wrong with the Titans red zone offense?

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A deep dive in to what worked in 2016 and what’s not working in 2017.

Seattle Seahawks v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Last year the Titans were the NFL’s most efficient team in the red zone, cashing in 72% of their trips inside the 20 for touchdowns. This year the team’s efficiency is down to just 41% which is second worst in the league above only the Cardinals. Tennessee averages 2.4 red zone trips per game — also down from 3.1 trips per game in 2016 — so the reduction from 72% efficiency to 41% has cost the team over a field goal per game, 3.39 points per game to be exact. The red zone efficiency is not the team’s only problem at this point, but it is among the most dramatic as a drop from 1st in the league to 31st is a pretty steep fall. I went back and dove in to the numbers and the tape to see if I could find out what was going on.

What the stats say...

Below is a breakdown of 2016 vs 2017 year-to-date stats in the red zone. Stats are courtesy of charting data available on Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Untitled

2016 2017 Through Week 7
2016 2017 Through Week 7
Run: 55% Run: 62%
Pass: 45% Pass: 38%
Rushing Average: 3.46 YPA Rushing Average: 3.34 YPA
Passing Average: 4.8 YPA Passing Average: 2.9 YPA
Passing Passing
Mariota 36 of 59 (61%) Mariota 7 of 18 (39%)
Mariota 19 TDs, 0 INTs Mariota 0 TDs, 0 INTs
Receiving Receiving
Murray 10/16 for 72 yds and 3 TD Matthews 2/5 for 22 yds and 0 TD
Matthews 8/10 for 70 yds and 6 TD Decker 2/4 for 10 yds and 0 TD
Walker 6/9 for 54 yds and 4 TD Walker 0/3 for 0 yds and 0 TD
Sharpe 2/5 for 6 yds and 0 TD Davis 1/1 for 11 yds and 0 TD
Johnson 2/3 for 14 yds and 2 TD Murray 1/1 for 6 yds and 0 TD
Wright 1/3 for 6 yds and 1 TD Henry 1/1 for 3 yds and 0 TD
Douglas 0/3 for 0 yds and 0 TD Taylor 0/1 for 0 yds and 0 TD
Fasano 2/2 for 24 yds and 2 TD
Henry 1/2 for 15 yds and 0 TD
Fowler 1/1 for 14 yds and 0 TD
Lewan 1/1 for 10 yds and 1 TD
Rushing Rushing
Murray 40 carries for 88 yds and 8 TDs Murray 11 carries for 26 yds and 1 TD
Henry 21 carries for 95 yds and 5 TDs Henry 10 carries for 44 yds and 1 TD
Mariota 9 carries for 62 yds and 2 TDs Mariota 5 carries for 26 yds and 2 TDs
Sharpe 1 carry for 1 yd and 0 TDs Walker 2 carries for -2 yds and 1 TD
Fowler 1 carry for 3 yds and 1 TD
FYI: This is much easier to read on desktop. Pro-Football-Reference.com

I have three big takeaways from this information.

  1. The passing game is really struggling in the red zone. The rushing numbers are nearly identical, but the passing numbers are way way down. That seems like a good place to start looking for a problem.
  2. Murray’s usage in the passing game in the red zone is down substantially from 2016 levels when he led the team in red zone targets for the season. He only has one red zone target in 2017, coming in Week 7 against the Browns.
  3. Matthews and Walker were outstanding in the red zone last year, but have combined for 2 catches on 8 targets so far this year.

Its pretty clear that the passing game in the red zone is struggling. You probably didn’t need all those stats to tell you that, but I think that information is helpful for trying to make sense of why its struggling.

What the tape says...

I went back and looked at what worked for the Titans in the red zone in 2016, specifically in the passing game. What I found was a couple things. The Titans have a few pet plays in the red zone that they really like. One is the “Fasano play” where they run play action to the strong side and flood that side of the field with routes down field and then leak the tight end back across to the weak side.

Here is an example of it working to perfection in 2016 against Green Bay. They also scored a touchdown on this play against Cleveland last year.

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The Titans have tried it in the red zone once in 2017, but it didn’t come off as well. This time they tried to run it for Delanie Walker, but the Jaguars saw it coming and tracked Walker the whole way. Part of the reason this was so effective with Fasano was the fact that defenses didn’t expect much from Fasano as a receiver, so I’m not crazy about them using Delanie in this role. He is always going to attract eyeballs of defenders.

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Another common play I saw the Titans use in close was a two man mesh concept. This is a max protect play since it takes some time for the receivers to cross all the way through to the other side. This is a play designed to beat man coverage. Against Miami in 2016, they were able to get Matthews for a touchdown on this play. Mariota puts it in a great spot and Rishard goes up and makes a nice play.

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Here is the same look in 2017 against the Raiders. This time Matthews is running to the wide side of the field and is the first read, but the Raiders safety stays home and forces Mariota to try a pass to Decker on the short side instead. He throws it up to try to let Decker make a play, but the corner gets a hand on it and knocks it away.

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Then, of course, you have MCM’s favorite play: the jet tight end sweep. That’s a new wrinkle that was added this year and worked to perfection against Jacksonville as you can see below. You can see every Jaguar crashes down to the left towards the action to Derrick Henry which leaves Walker with an easy path to the end zone.

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Four weeks later, they dialed up the similar concept from a different look. This time, they’ve got an empty set with trips left and a tight end on both sides. Watch the Colts alignment at the spot where I paused it. I highlighted John Simon who is lined up heads up on Jonnu Smith. If the Colts remain in this alignment it is an easy touchdown, but #57 Jon Bostic does a great job seeing that they are out-flanked and bumping Simon outside. That small change completely blew up this play for the Titans. Smith had no chance to pin Simon and that stretches the entire play out. I don’t love this version of the jet sweep simply because there is no threat to keep the linebackers and safeties from selling out on Walker once he starts to go in motion.

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Later in the game, however the Titans come back and use that aggressive reaction to the Walker motion against Indianapolis. This is the exact same look as the jet sweep that went for a touchdown against Jacksonville in Week 2, but this time they give it to Murray on a dive up the middle. The Walker action moves six defenders to the right and allows Murray to run right through a light box despite the fact that the Titans are in a tight set. This is really nice play design.

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These last few plays show one of the problems with the Titans red zone offense. Teams have seen some of this stuff on tape and are ready for it. There is nothing wrong with going back to what has worked before — NFL playbooks are only so big, not every play can be a one-off unique look — but it is apparent that teams are adjusting to what they’ve seen from Tennessee in these situations and the Titans will now need to adapt like they did with the tight end jet sweep action to keep defenses off balance. Mike Mularkey has talked about self-scouting during the bye and today he was quoted in a Jim Wyatt article talking about the red zone specifically.

“Really all three phases,” Mularkey said, “(and we) found some things out, some we kind of had an idea, some we didn't. I think it'll help us in the second half. Obviously, we've got to get better down (in the red zone), there's no question about it. We saw some things down there that we need to get better at.”

I have to imagine that some of these tendencies that are on tape will have counters built off of them and we will see some of those in the next few weeks.

One of the major pillars of the Titans red zone offense over the last couple years have been designed Mariota runs. They love to use Mariota’s rushing ability when they get inside the 20 yard line. That has held true this year as well as two of his three rushing touchdowns have been designed runs in the red zone, and he would have had a third if not for a very soft holding call on Eric Decker on the play below. Again, this is good design. Lots of defenses expect the Titans to run in the red zone by reputation, so they sell out on the dive action to Henry which leaves a big lane for Mariota.

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Not having a mobile version of Mariota for the last three and a half games has really hurt the Titans offense. We’ve covered this here many many times, but he really is the key to the running game here.

However, as we covered in the stats above, running in the red zone hasn’t really been the problem for the Titans this year. It’s been the passing game. Mariota’s 7 of 18 stat line is very bad, and there are some mistakes from him in the tape. We will look at a few of them here.

This first one is an example of Mariota potentially be too careful with the ball in the red zone. His first read is a high-low read on a flat-flag route combo between Decker and Davis. The Raiders have this covered so Mariota moves on to his next read as he should. Walker is open when he comes back to him in the middle of the field, but Mariota hesitates and pulls the ball down instead of throwing it. He gets one last chance as he sprints left. Taywan Taylor does a good job of going to the corner of the end zone and boxing out his defender, however Mariota opts not to throw it despite it being 3rd down.

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Here is another 3rd down in the red zone. This time the Titans roll Mariota out and give him another high low option between Taylor and Decker. Neither one is open initially, but Decker is able to work himself free late. Mariota’s throw is at his feet though and he’s not able to make the catch. Its little things like this that can kill red zone attempts.

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This next play features a behavior that Mariota has rarely demonstrated in the past: locking on to one target regardless of coverage. Here the Colts are sitting in a flattened Cover 2 zone that many teams run in the red zone. The Titans have a good play call for it too with the two inside targets — Decker (spotlighted) and Walker — running quick posts on either side. That should give Mariota a hole behind the linebackers and between the safeties to hit one of these guys in the back of the end zone. The problem here is that the Colts middle linebacker #44 Antonio Morrison is tracking Walker all the way and runs right in to the window that Mariota wanted to hit Walker in. However, Mariota sticks on Walker and tries to force it in to him late, missing an open Decker on the opposite side. This is a quick developing play and it gives the quarterback very little time to get multiple reads in, but Mariota stares Walker down on this one. We’ve seen in the past where he can move linebackers and safeties where he wants them to go with his eyes before throwing back to another spot, but he didn’t do that here.

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This next play was a 2nd and goal for the Titans in Cleveland. They had just lost a couple yards on a DeMarco Murray run and were trying to at least get this in to a 3rd and short situation. The Browns are sitting in a compressed Cover 2 zone similar to what we saw from the Colts on the last play and the Titans are attacking that by trying to overload the left zone with a clear out and double-ins beneath it. Their hope is that the linebacker that drops off the line off scrimmage early in the play follows Walker to the flag route on the right side, leaving both Decker and Taylor one on one against their defenders on the in routes. That linebacker reads Mariota back to Decker though. Mariota sees it late which creates the hesitation before trying to jam it in to Taylor late who can’t hold on for the catch. Decker was open enough to pick up a few yards here if Mariota hits him early out of his break. He’s not going to score, but he gives you 3rd and goal from the 4 or 5 at worst. Despite the fact that the ball was thrown out of rhythm, Taylor has to come up with this catch. Taylor has been pretty good so far in his rookie year, but if he wants a bigger role in this offense he’s going to have to learn to make contested catches. That’s something he has really struggled with early on.

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So what are they doing different when it comes to red zone passing this year that they didn’t do last year? Well, based on my tape review, not much from a schematic standpoint. You are still seeing a lot of similar route combinations and reads. Here are a few examples of what worked in 2016. These all happen to be from the Chargers game where Mariota was outstanding last year.

This first play is the exact same concept we saw against the Colts above, except they have more room to work since they aren’t as close to the goal line. Matthews is lined up in the slot at the bottom of the screen and just runs a simple skinny post. Matthews isn’t wide open by any means, but he has leverage, Mariota trusts him to make a play, and he does.

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This next play is the same concept as the flat-flag combo that was Mariota’s first read in the example from the Raiders game above except this time the outside receiver runs a corner instead of having the inside receiver run a flag. There’s nothing super tricky about this. It’s just a really nice route by Matthews and a perfect throw with timing from Mariota.

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This last one is possibly my favorite Mariota throw of all-time. It’s up there with the deep ball to Matthews in Chicago last year. It’s a pretty simple slant-flat combo route, but watch Mariota move the linebacker #56 with his eyes and thread a needle to Walker crossing in behind him. The accuracy and timing this requires is off the charts. This is what Mariota is capable of in the red zone.

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Conclusion

The good news is that I don’t think there is anything permanently broken about the Titans red zone offense. They are doing a lot of the same things in 2017 that gave them such great success in 2016. That may be part of the problem in itself. Teams will catch on to these pet concepts and have their defense looking for them when they get in the red zone. There is no doubt that is a big part of what went in to the self-scouting the Titans did during the bye week.

I think the biggest issue comes down to the fact that Mariota just hasn’t looked comfortable with what he’s seeing in the red zone. Part of that may be adjusting to new receivers in Decker and Taylor, but his three top targets in the red zone from 2016 all returned in Murray, Matthews, and Walker. Murray’s decreased role in the red zone has been a little strange, but I feel like that is probably due to a combination of Murray’s hamstring issues and the Titans wanting to work in Decker more in this area of the field. It will be interesting to see if they get back to that after the bye. Murray’s health has probably hampered this team more than we are talking about this year. He was a big cog in the passing game last year, and his usage there is way down, especially inside the 20. I’d like to see some of that return if Murray is able to get back to his healthy self in the back half of the season.

If I could make one change to the Titans offense in the red zone this year — and everywhere else on offense for that matter — it would be to ask Mariota to be more aggressive and put trust in his receivers to make plays for him. He’s done that to some extent, but the Titans were at their best in 2016 when he was willing to put the ball in tight windows knowing that his guy — almost always Matthews, Walker, or Murray — was more likely to come down with it. I don’t think Decker and Taylor have earned that trust with their performance so far this year. Hopefully they will as the year goes on, but this is really where Corey Davis could change things. We already saw Mariota trust Davis in a big spot against the Raiders and Davis rewarded that trust. Now that they both are — crosses all fingers and toes — fully healthy we should see much more of that. As I mentioned above, the Titans love to use Mariota’s mobility as a weapon in the red zone and a return of that will be a tremendous help by itself.

Fixing the red zone issues isn’t a cure-all, but it would be a step towards getting this offense back where we expected it to be before the season.